Climate change can be described soberly with numbers and analyses or prepared in an animated form. That way, it can be seen at a glance how large volumes of data can be used to visualize changes to our planet.
Glacial water drips down from the ceiling of the deep-blue ice cave; tiny snowflakes whirl around at the entrance to the cave; the loud calving of the glacier can be heard in the distance. The Vatnajökull on Iceland is the largest glacier in Europe, covering 8,000 square kilometers with ice that is up to 900 meters thick. It has lost 300 cubic meters of its volume since the end of the 19th century.
Big data example: Satellite data from space
That which visitors to the national park in Iceland would hardly notice about the ancient ice mass with their bare eyes has been documented meticulously by NASA’s Landsat-5 satellite. Users can gaze at the result in a fast-motion video on the www.earthtime.org website. The Vatnajökull melts in just a few seconds. The freely accessible tool uses big data from space to visualize how the earth has changed between 1984 and 2016 due to climate change and serious human interventions in nature. Tropical forests are cleared to make arable land, large cities spring up out of the ground in the desert, the sea level is rising, coral reefs are dying. Everything has been recorded by Landsat – climate change in fast motion enabled by big data technologies.
They are becoming more and more important to understand our planet, document damage, install early warning systems and build models to allow a look into the future. Only with modern analysis tools can researchers understand exactly what is happening to our planet and what are the causes for the environmental changes. With the help of these findings, it is ultimately possible to lessen or even prevent the impacts of climate change.
Measurement data from all over the world
The tool is an initiative of the CREATE Lab, an association of scientists from the American Carnegie Mellon University in cooperation with the World Economic Forum The data for the animation originate from different sources: Besides pictures from NASA, the program is fed data from the United States Census Bureau, the Brazilian Igarapé Institute, the United Nations, research programs of various universities including Oxford and Harvard, and other information.
For the fast-motion video, EarthTime combines map data with historical and current mass data such as forest clearing, fires or glacial melting and builds complex animation from it. An enormous amount of processing power is necessary for such image analyses, which is why EarthTime relies on graphics processing units (GPUs) in order to analyze large amounts of data in a short time and that way visualize complex interrelationships that can be understood at first glance.
Manhattan under water
In this connection, historical data is just as important as current data. Only through comparisons from earlier and today is it possible to develop reliable patterns that allow a look into the future. EarthTime shows which land masses will be swallowed up by the rising sea level. Accordingly, the sea level could rise so much in the next 100 years, even with a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, that Manhattan would be under water. However, the tool shows not only the negative effects of climate change. Users can also use a drop-down menu to retrieve a map of renewable energies and, for example, see how wind and solar power plants have developed in the USA in the past 30 years. “EarthTime is a tool for telling stories, says Illah Nourbakhsh, Director of CREATE Lab. “The impacts of humanity can be observed globally. We can’t really understand climate change, migration or important social and political trends without their interrelationships over time. With EarthTime this is finally possible.”
Reduce CO2 emission with big data
That which is almost already a matter of course in other areas such as in e-commerce or industrial manufacturing, is still in its infancy in environmental protection. Research is only gradually recognizing that big data has tremendous potential to acquire new findings on climate change and head off negative consequences. In the logistics industry, for example, big data applications are already contributing to protecting resources: A container ship that is not able to dock at the port at the scheduled time, because other ships were delayed, can sail at half speed thanks to information from an early warning system, and that way save a large amount of diesel. On the other hand, fleets of vehicles can use telematics systems to optimize routes and consume less fuel.
For the earth observation program Copernicus of the European Space Agency, on the other hand, satellites have their eyes on land and water masses around the clock and as a result provide a great deal of data on the status of our planet. That way, 20 terabytes of data are compiled every day, which is as much as 4,000 HD movies. The data is stored in the object based storage of the Open Telekom Cloud, and is accessible for free to anybody. With these pictures, shipping companies, for example, can follow how ice flows move in the oceans and match their shipping routes optimally to them, which has a positive effect on the CO2 balance of the large tankers. Even forest fires or illegal forest clearing can be discovered at an early stage with big data technologies.
Companies nowadays need a much broader and more exact database in order to address customers successfully across all sales and communications channels. Big data is becoming a key competitive advantage.